Risk and Culture: The Peculiar Fear of Flying
The politics of aviation safety are unusual, possibly unique. The political forces favoring increased public regulation are formidable, particularly during a proclaimed era of deregulation. Many congressmen favor increased safety regulation, practically without regard to cost. (They travel frequently by air, and so do their most influential constituents.) The NTSB, a zealous advocate of increased regulation, provides Congress with recommendations that carry the weight of "expert advice." The powerful Air Line Pilots Association also joins several unions representing flight attendants in urging Congress to adopt regulations proposed by the NTSB. Virtually nobody but the Airline Transportation Association argues against increased expenditures for aviation safety, and its voice is muted by the fact that many airlines generally favor government regulation. That is, they often prefer to have the government specify necessary safety precautions than to decide themselves. There is also widespread popular support for airline safety. It is one of those rare issues that motivates hundreds of citizens to write cards and letters directly to an administrative agency in support of new
regulations. More common are the CPSC proceedings, which attract little public interest.
Aviation safety is, quite simply, a political sacred cow. This explains much of what happened with the respective NFPA and FAA standards. The unusual alliance of political interests favoring aviation safety regulation accounts for the FAA proposal and its quick adoption. Mobilized by the Air Canada fire, these forces motivated Congress to establish strict oversight procedures in 1984 to ensure the quick enactment of various regulations, including the fire extinguisher and smoke detector rule. The special status of aviation safety apparently dulled the OMB's normally critical senses about new regulations. There were no challenges to the cost-benefit analysis, no delays to seek additional justifications or modifications from the agency. Similarly, without serious objection, NFPA enacted regulatory provisions that committee members agree will cost more than what can be justified rationally. But apparently the fear of flying is pervasive. The politics of aviation safety produces regulatory outcomes unlike those commonly associated with social regulation.